Microwave Cameras Can Give Pilots X Ray Vision

A camera that sees through clouds, fog, and even some buildings? ThermoTrex Corp., a San Diego unit of Thermo Electron Corp., has a patent for a passive microwave camera that does just that. And it has won a $3.4 million contract to develop the system for U.S. Army helicopters.

While ordinary cameras capture reflected light, the Thermotrex camera looks at the microwave radiation that is generated by virtually all objects. And because microwaves have longer wavelengths than visible light, they penetrate such barriers as clouds and plywood.

The system will use the flat metal area in the nose of aircraft as an antenna to gather microwave signals. The camera then "reads" the wavelengths with an optical processor, producing a picture. The plan is to integrate the technology into a heads-up display that helps pilots see through fog and other weather hazards. That should let military pilots fly more missions and make landings safer for commercial jets.